Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The best paper relating jazz improvisation to organization theory I've read

Exploring the Empty Spaces of Organizing: How Improvisational Jazz Helps Redescribe Organizational Structure
Mary Jo Hatch
Organization Studies, January 1999 vol. 20 no. 1 pp. 75-100

The paper uses improvisation as a "redescription" metaphor (Rorty) of organizational structure. It has strong ties to writing on experience, sensemaking and aesthetics. It's full of theory relating the art and performance of jazz improvisation to thinking about organizational structure, but even more has understanding for the jazz nuances, evidenced by her writing about groove, feel, etc. One of many examples: "Groove and feel in jazz terms involve making structural aspects of performance (e.g. tempo and rhythm) implicit, which jazz musicians accomplish by rendering them subjects of their emotions and physical bodies (i.e., by literally feeling tempo and rhythm in an emotional and physical sense)." (p. 89)

The paper way extends what I was trying to talk about in this post. The writing is exceptionally clear and evocative for an academic paper, without losing authority (funny how that can be).

A few excerpts below.

A very nice description of tacit communication and intuitive "moves" in improvisation, especially soloing:

Soloists encourage the exchange of ideas by leaving space in their playing for other musicians to make suggestions, for instance they may leave gaps between their melodic phrases, or play their chords ambiguously by leaving out certain notes that would distinguish one chord from one or two others. Of course, they do not explicitly think, 'Okay, now I will leave a space for someone else to fill.' Space-making and filling are more spontaneous than this. Jazz musicians listen to the playing of the other musicians and, in listening, spaces are created and filled by a logic that emerges as part of the interaction of the musicians. This simultaneous listening and playing produces the characteristic give and take of live jazz improvisation and also provides the conditions for conflict that can introduce the unexpected that inspires performance excellence, but also risks disaster. (p. 79)

Ethical choices in listening in improvisation:
Ideally, each musician listens to all the other players all the time they are performing a tune. Nevertheless, many musicians freely admit that they reach this ideal only once in a while, primarily when they achieve peak moments of jazz performance. At other times, the musicians will concentrate on listening to one or two of the other players intensely, often shifting their focus from one player to another as the tune develops. (p. 80)

The experiential component of communication:
The jazz metaphor suggests that whenever we interact, communication rests as heavily upon emotional and physical feeling as it does on the intellectual content of the messages involved. (p. 89)

The way we can (sometimes) spontaneously and instantly connect and "groove" with co-workers on projects, even if new to each other, if the situation and communication are right:
Just as jazz musicians assign tempo and rhythm to the emotional realm and communicate on this basis to one another as they improvise (even when they have never played together before). workers may equally depend upon their ability to emotionally communicate as they coordinate their efforts for organizational achievement in the context of temporary teams or fluid networks. ... communication does not necessarily depend upon self-disclosure, but rather is an intimacy based in shared action. That is, we are as capable of using our emotions to form working relationships as we are of using them to form friendship or familial relationships, and this capacity can extend to those with whom we have no relationship at all apart from the opportunity to act together at a particular moment in time.... Rhythm, harmony, groove and feel have emotional and aesthetic dimensions, and when these aspects of work processes are engaged we may likewise find the experience of flow that Csikszentmihalyi claims constitutes peak performance. (pp. 89-90)

I see Hatch has other intriguing articles -- e.g. Hatch, M.J. and Jones, M.O. (1997) Photocopylore at work: Aesthetics, collective creativity and the social construction of organizations. Studies in Cultures, Organizations and Society , 3(2):263-287. [ISSN 1024-5286]; Hatch, M.J. (1996) The role of the researcher: An analysis of narrative position in organization theory. Journal of Management Inquiry , 5(4):359-374. [ISSN 1056-4926] -- but these will have to come AT (after thesis).

There is other excellent writing relating jazz improvisation to organizational and similar issues -- Sawyer and Schön come to mind -- but this paper is my current fave.

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